Saturday night, just after 5, at Melisse, the California-French restaurant in Santa Monica celebrated for its lobster risotto with white truffles. "Nachos?" the sommelier asks, pulling a container from an El Cholo bag.
Most everyone else, from the maitre d' to the dishwashers, eats the staff meal prepared in house. Tonight it's Cuban chicken, rice and beans with fresh salsa and a salad distinguished by fennel fronds (leftovers from last night's prosciutto, fig and fennel special). It's self serve, and the meal usually lasts less than 20 minutes.
The kitchen staff eats on a low brick wall overlooking the parking lot. Front-of-the-house workers eat in the dining room.
Conversation ranges wildly, from the best location for the secondhand shop that one waitress wants to open to the table of 12 booked for the following night.
Chef de cuisine Mario Perez promises pad thai for tomorrow's staff dinner, which leads into chatter about a local Thai eatery featuring what bartender Brian Kalliel calls "cute little Thai waitresses." At the opposite end of the table, waiter Karim Enamul urges his male colleagues to eat their onions. "They're good for sex," he says. "That's what they say in India, in my country."
Seconds later, the exodus begins. Everyone clears their plates. Waiters don white oxfords and make sure silverware is aligned, crystal polished. The first guests are due in 30 minutes. By then, the scent of Cuban chicken should be gone.